Wiggins in command on Tour after time-trial win
Englishman runs off with time trial
BESANCON, France — If Monday’s time trial at the Tour de France was ‘‘the test of truth’’ — as one top rider called it — then Bradley Wiggins aced it.
The Olympic champion, aiming to be the first British winner of cycling’s showcase race, sped to victory in the first big time trial, tightening his grip on the yellow jersey.
‘‘That was my physical best out there,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s probably my best time trial ever.’’
The race against the clock is a discipline Wiggins loves. And it showed in the ninth stage, a 25.8-mile ride from Arc-et-Senans to Besancon. He finished 35 seconds ahead of Sky teammate Christopher Froome, the runner-up.
Defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia, seen as Wiggins’s most formidable rival, was a disappointing sixth. He called Wiggins and Froome ‘‘very, very, very strong riders.’’
Evans was 1:43 behind. He remains second overall, trailing Wiggins by 1:53. Froome rose to third, from sixth, and is 2:07 behind his teammate.
‘‘I was really motivated — the time trial is my thing,’’ Wiggins said. “I am very happy now.’’
Overall, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali is fourth, 2:23 behind, and Russia’s Denis Menchov is fifth, 3:02 back.
Wiggins has been the favorite since a dazzling stretch of three stage-race victories this season. At the Tour, he was fourth in 2009 and 24th in 2010, just behind Lance Armstrong, riding in his final Tour. He crashed out last year.
As this 99th Tour continues, Sky is likely to shelter Wiggins in the flats and escort him up Alps and Pyrenees climbs by pressing the pace with him in their draft, trying to wear out rivals.
Then it will be up to Wiggins to deliver solo again in the next-to-last stage — an even longer, 33-mile time trial from Bonneval to Chartres before an often-celebratory ride to the Champs-Elysees finish.
Wiggins insists the three-week race is far from over, saying a crash or illness could douse his victory hopes. He also noted that Evans has promised to fight to the finish.
‘‘It’s never over until the fat lady sings, and she hasn’t entered the building yet,’’ Wiggins said.
But the stage raises questions about whether Evans — or anyone else — can challenge Wiggins and his team, which has shown strength in both the climbs and time trials that often determine the Tour winner.
For the Australian, it will mean trying to attack on the climbs. Two uphill finishes remain, one each in the Alps — on Thursday — and the Pyrenees next week.
For Wiggins, the task may be psychological: Holding the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks comes with mental strain, for the rider and his teammates.
If Wiggins goes the rest of the way in yellow, it would mark the first time only two riders had worn the leader’s jersey in a Tour since Armstrong took it from Estonia’s Jaan Kirsipuu en route to winning the first of his seven titles in 1999.
Evans, who acknowledged he faces a bigger hurdle than he did last year when he overcame a 57-second deficit to Andy Schleck in the final time trial a day before the finish, insisted the Tour wasn’t over. ‘‘I rode not my best time trial, but certainly not a bad one,’’ he said.
After 10 straight days of racing, the pack of 178 riders gets its first rest day Tuesday.